Conflict Resolution for Coaches

Imagine that you told your goalies at your first practice of the season that you plan to play them on a rotation for the entire year, so that each of them will receive one full game every weekend.  You receive a call from one of the moms wanting to know why some teams have one goalie and others have two, and if her son has to attend games when he isn’t scheduled to play.

How would you react?

As coaches and administrators, we can’t un-know what we know.  To us, it is obvious that the goalie has to be on the bench supporting his or her teammates in order to be a fully integrated member of the team.  The team is at risk when they don’t have a backup goalie to fill in if something happens to your starter for the day.  Even though the minutes are distributed differently, goalies still end up playing more minutes than most skaters, particularly on a team where playing time is distributed evenly.

On the other hand, she can’t know what she doesn’t know.  She is paying the same tuition as everyone else, yet she sees another goalie who is getting twice as much playing time as her son; of course, she doesn’t know that her team’s practice partner happens to be the only team out 30 in the entire organization with one goalie.  It stands to reason that if other teams only have one goalie then her team could go a game or two without a goalie on the bench.  Maybe her daughter is a high school senior on the varsity soccer team, and she wants to catch a game or two of her last season but is always with her son at hockey.  Maybe she could really use a couple extra hours on the weekend to help care for a sick parent.  Maybe her son has ADHD and she is concerned that he will become a problem on the bench if he has to sit an entire game.

It is normal and healthy for parents’ priorities to be different from those of coaches and administrators.  A parent’s first priority should be her own child and family, just as our priority should be the team and every player on it, equally.  Even when coaches have the best intentions to do the most good for the largest number of children, some parents are not going to like what you do.

In my example, the parent might prefer for the coach to split each game between the two goalies so each child has the chance to play during every game; the coach prefers to play his goalies in a rotation because he thinks it is too disruptive to the players and the team to switch in the middle of each game.  I’ve seen coaches do it both ways, and neither position is fundamentally right or wrong.

Whether the mom asked her question in a spirit of politeness and genuine curiosity or hostility, when I presented the goalie mom to scenario to a few coaches they were unanimously annoyed by the question (to varying degrees).  Many coaches have become so embittered by years of conflict that their default position is defense.  It is frustrating and exhausting to work under the constant scrutiny of people who often have little understanding of the sport and the demands of team management, and little willingness or ability to consider the big picture outside of the impact it has on their own children.  When coaches avoid parent contact and shut down communication, they are usually doing so out of self-preservation.

All of this is perfectly understandable.  I’ve been there myself.  Unfortunately, when we expect inappropriate behavior from parents it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I have found that even in a culture where feedback is welcomed and actively solicited, the more reasonable and even-keeled parents are less likely to speak up because they are afraid of gaining a bad reputation and inviting retaliation towards their children.  When coaches freeze parents out, they end up hearing only from the most aggressively outspoken parents and then paint all the parents with that same brush.  This only serves to widen the chasm between parents and coaches and perpetuate the cycle of animosity.

Right now, some of you are asking yourselves:  so what am I supposed to do?  Just let the parents walk all over me and tell me how to run my team?  The answer is:  absolutely not.  You have the right to be treated with respect, and you have an obligation to run your team fairly and consistently to the best of your ability, which is almost impossible if you are catering to the whims of parents.  In their book Getting to Yes:  Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Roger Fisher and William Ury refer to this either-or thinking as hard vs. soft positional bargaining.  In hard positional bargaining, participants are adversaries and the goal is victory; in contrast, soft positional bargaining occurs when participants see themselves as friends and yield easily to pressure to preserve the relationship.  In the goalie scenario, the hard position might be something like: “Who is she to tell me how to run my team?  I’ll play my goalies however I want, and I don’t care if she likes it or not!” and the soft position might be: “I’d rather rotate my goalies, but I guess it’s not that important.  I’ll just do what she wants and keep her happy.”

Fisher and Ury propose a third alternative called principled negotiation, which is designed to reach wise solutions efficiently and amicably.  The four basic elements of principled negotiation are:

  1. Separate the people from the problem;
  2. Focus on interests, not positions;
  3. Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do; and
  4. Insist that results be based on some objective standard.

In this example, we can start the process by choosing to see the mom as a loving and concerned parent who thinks that the goalie rotation may not work for her son or her family.  When we ask about her specific concerns, she shares that her son has ADHD and she is afraid his behavior may be disruptive on the bench if he has to sit an entire game each weekend.  You are both on the same page, at least to a point – you certainly don’t want to invite bad behavior, and you think splitting games is reasonable in theory.  However, you don’t want to be locked into switching goalies halfway through the game if the starting goalie is hot, and you find it difficult to distribute playing time equally if you split some games and not others.  You propose some possible solutions that you think could help you achieve your goal of minimizing disruptions while helping this player manage his behavior:

  • Select some games that are unlikely to be competitive and agree to split those;
  • Make a rule that the goalie on the bench is the team statistician for each game
  • Tell the player that if he is having a bad day you will ask him to take a bathroom break so he can leave the ice and blow off some steam.

More to come…